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Surviving the Temporary Absence of a Spouse and Father

by Rachel Keller

Recently, my husband, Maynard, returned from a seven-week mission trip to the Philippines. Maynard had been on two-week mission trips, both to Thailand and Zimbabwe, but we had never been apart for more than two weeks. I realize that other families, such as those in the military, are often separated for much longer time periods; but our family is unlike the average American family in that we usually eat all three meals together. So seven weeks apart seemed like an eternity. (My husband is home because he is a CFP professional who operates his own company from a home office.)

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Needless to say, none of us were looking forward to his departure since we enjoyed having him nearby most of the time. How could I as a mother fill the shoes of both parents for those long weeks? No matter how much I wanted to stop time and keep him home, however, his imminent departure loomed in front of us. Because I knew it was God’s will for my husband to minister overseas while the rest of our family remained home, I knew that God would give me the grace and fortitude to be both a mother and “surrogate” father to my five children.

My oldest children understood that their father would be gone for seven weeks, but my younger ones could not fathom how long seven weeks would be. The morning my husband flew out, the children and I stapled a long colorful paper chain containing 50 links. We draped this over and under our metal railing. The chain seemed so long, but every morning the children excitedly removed another link, and they didn’t have to ask me, “How many more days until Daddy comes home?” They could count the links whenever they wanted. Eventually, the chain became so short we had to hang it rather than drape it. How excited we all became when only a few links remained!

Although my husband was gone, I determined to make each week as enjoyable as possible while attempting to maintain a “normal” routine. Just because he wasn’t home didn’t mean we would eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day for lunch. I continued to make special lunches as I did when he was home. I also planned something for the children to look forward to each week, but without spending an inordinate amount of money for activities or events.  Each week the children would ask, “What are we doing special this week?” What I discovered was that having a great time doesn’t need to cost a bundle because many activities are either free or cost very little.

My children, especially my sons, love to fish. So twice, I took them fishing—once by the river and once at a park lake. While my three sons fished, I pushed the girls in the jogging stroller along the river or around the lake. The boys fished for lunch, the girls got a free ride and fed the ducks, and I got some much needed exercise. Neither time did the boys catch anything, but we all had fun.

Speaking of exercise, a couple times we all walked, and even tried some running in our neighborhood. Again, I pushed the girls, while the rest of us enjoyed the beautiful sunshine.

On one especially beautiful weekend—a perfect day for flying kites—we spent several hours at a park by the river. While the girls had fun on the playground, my older sons flew their kites, and my youngest son played with his remote control airplane. The day was so sunny that we took a short walk on a paved trail by the river.

Each week my two oldest had violin lessons. Of course, I had to take all five children with me, but the studio was really too small for all of us. After a couple weeks of crowding into the small room with a few books and sketch pads to keep the youngest children occupied for an hour, I decided to vary the routine on violin days. One sunny warm day, while my two oldest sons had violin lessons, the children and I strolled to a nearby park to play. A couple other weeks, we took a meal to a needy family and spent some time visiting them. One week I pushed the girls in the stroller to the co-op to shop. Another week we traveled to a nearby library to check out some books and a video.

We did go out to eat a couple times. Once, I was able to use a “free” coupon for a few of my children. All six of us ate for about $5, and the children were able to enjoy the play area. We also ate at Country Cookin’ which is a very reasonably-priced restaurant. My two youngest were under six so they were free. To celebrate Valentine’s Day, we ate a special dinner by candlelight. My children enjoyed the candles so much that we lit candles for many other meals.

Although it was too cold to camp outside, we decided to have a little camping excursion in our house. (You could also have a picnic lunch in your house on a rainy day.) We placed blankets and sleeping bags on the floor. After reading some stories together, we had a family devotional time before lights out.

Bed times were most difficult for my youngest two. During my husband’s absence, the girls temporarily moved into my bedroom at night. They slept on sleeping bags and blankets on the floor. This helped them feel more secure.

In addition to our little excursions, we also had guests in our home. We always enjoy having families over and wanted to continue our hospitality even though Maynard was away. We hosted a birthday party for a couple friends, had families over for dinner, and even had two missionaries as overnight guests. One missionary was on deputation to the Philippines so we were able to ask many questions and see and touch quite a few items from the Philippines. She even sang us some songs in Tagalog, the Filipino language. The girls had fun trying to sing in Tagalog. We all enjoyed seeing the missionaries and hearing missionary stories. One Wednesday night, we visited a church and were blessed to hear a beautiful piano concert by a missionary who was also a gifted pianist.

Because of my husband’s empty seat, we definitely missed him at meal times. I continued to have regular meals, but we began varying our seating arrangement to make meal time more interesting. We had fun sitting in “Daddy’s seat” and rearranging our seating position. Most people tend to get in a rut, doing the same exercises each day, sitting in the same seats at a table, church, or a meeting, or wearing their watch on the same arm. Sometimes simple changes are refreshing and make for a pleasant experience.

Each morning at breakfast, we chose one missionary prayer card as well as a Christmas card or letter. We prayed for those families at all our meals. Usually, we had a family reading time after lunch. Even though my youngest two may not have completely understood everything I read, all the children eagerly looked forward to this time.

I continued to have family devotional times on most days, usually after one of our meals. Since lunch was our reading time, I would plan family time for either after breakfast or dinner depending on the day. Family time included a variety of activities such as going over character traits and reading from the Character Sketch book, reading a missionary biography, discussing the attributes and names of God, reading and discussing Scripture passages that spoke to our hearts, Scripture memory, and singing. On the night we camped out, I showed my children how to pray from Scripture, specifically the Psalms.

Nearly every night, we would listen to Adventures in Odyssey. After we finished school work, practiced music, and cleaned up, we had some free time. Occasionally, we would watch a family video, and several nights we played games. We especially enjoyed playing Chinese checkers and Scrabble together. My boys played monopoly, Risk, and Chess as well. The girls and I had fun putting together puzzles and building with blocks.

During the week, the boys competed for points. (I found some excellent charts, certificates, and coupons at Chart Jungle.) I developed a point system and used the charts, certificates and bonus coupons. Each week, the children could earn points and stickers for prizes. (My boys preferred money—smart boys!)

What helped us most while Maynard was gone was being able to see him and talk to him on our computer (using Skype). He also used his Magic Jack plugged into his computer to call us (and we could call him, too) without incurring any long distance phone calls. Hearing him on the phone was great, and the quality of the call was excellent! However, we all preferred seeing his face and hearing him on the computer. Whenever the computer started ringing in the morning or at night, the children would race to the computer to answer the ring. We could blow kisses to him, but the virtual hugs were a little more difficult. My husband could talk to the children and encourage them to keep on doing their best and help their mom out as much as possible. Because the Philippines is 12 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, Maynard would be getting up while we were winding our day down and vice versa.

The week before my husband returned, we made some minor, but refreshing, changes in the house which included switching the tablecloth and decorations in the kitchen, new bathroom rugs and clear shower liner for the bathroom (found inexpensively at Family Dollar), and some simple rearranging of furniture. The house was spotless when he returned, including his office. We wanted the home to be a breath of fresh air for him.

With some careful thought and planning, surviving the absence of a spouse is possible. We all learned to appreciate each other more as we yearned for his return. We all agree, however, that we don’t want to go through another long separation again. Now, we’re saving money for the next long mission trip so we can all travel together to serve where God wants us.

Maynard Keller

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